"ABOLISH CHILD SLAVERY!!" in English and Yiddish, probably taken during May 1, 1909 labor parade in New York City. Jewish American women have often been at the forefront of social change. (Photo credit: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress).

“ABOLISH CHILD SLAVERY!!” in English and Yiddish, probably taken during May 1, 1909 labor parade in New York City. Jewish American women have often been at the forefront of social change. (Photo credit: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress).

WASHINGTON — Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In,” has been on The New York Times bestseller list since it was released in March, residing in the top spot for six consecutive weeks. The 43-year-old Jewish Chief Operating Officer of Facebook seems to have written more than a manifesto aimed at working women. Lean-In has become a movement, as women across the country form Lean-In circles, monthly meetings for the sharing of personal experiences about being a professional woman in the 21st century workplace.

Of course, Sandberg is only the latest in a long line of Jewish American women at the forefront of social change. From Betty Friedan to Gloria Steinem, they have played an important role in agitating for fundamental changes to the nation’s laws and attitudes about women.

“You can’t talk about the women’s movement without talking about Betty Friedan,” said US Vice President Joe Biden during a speech in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month in May.

“The truth is that Jewish heritage, Jewish culture and Jewish values are such an essential part of who we are, that they are American values,” he said.

If Jewish women, then, have achieved a high degree of success in professional life – there are two Jewish women on the US Supreme Court, two in the Senate and one who chairs a national political party – there is one industry in which Jewish women cannot break the glass ceiling: the Jewish organizational world.

‘You can’t talk about the women’s movement without talking about Betty Friedan’

That irony is not lost on Shifra Bronznick, founding president of an organization dedicated to leveling the playing the field at the top of the Jewish professional pyramid.

“It’s ludicrous that you’ve had more Jewish women on the Supreme Court than heads of large city federations,” she says. “Women make up 70-80% of the Jewish community labor force, but look who’s at the top of foundations, federations and national policy organizations – all men.”

In The Forward’s annual salary survey of Jewish American leaders, none of the top 20 highest paid Jewish professionals is a woman. Among the top 50, only five are women.

“It’s a problem a lot of us have been yelling about for a long time,” says one of the five, Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women.

“Even though women make up a large majority of the field, so few are at the top. Until recently, none were heading a major city federation – none, zip, zero.” (Jennifer Gorovitz, CEO of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, became the first female executive of one of the 20 largest North American federations in 2011.)

Hebrew University president Menahem Ben Sasson welcomes US Supreme Court Associate Justice Elana Kagan in his office. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Hebrew University president Menahem Ben Sasson welcomes US Supreme Court Associate Justice Elana Kagan in his office. Kagan is one of two Jewish women on the court. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Kaufman and Bronznick say the problem doesn’t just affect women, but everyone eager to grow into leadership positions in Jewish organizations.

“What’s really crazy,” says Bronznick, “is to look not just at how long a man has led an organization, but to see how many times it’s the same man. At the so-called legacy organizations like the ADL and AJC, there is an unusual number of older men who’ve stayed in their jobs a long time without ever making plans to prepare a successor, build a deeper bench or distribute leadership more thoroughly.”

“The good practices you do to advance women are the good practices that are good for everyone – women and men. Professional development, coaching, mentoring, trying to distribute leadership within your organization, having flexible work policies, paid leave. These are best practices that should exist in every organization,” she says.

Consider the tenures of four of the best-known Jewish American groups:

  • The Anti-Defamation League (ADL): Abraham Foxman has been the National Director for 26 years. He joined the ADL in 1965.
  • The American Jewish Committee (AJC): David Harris has been the Executive Director for 23 years.
  • The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA): Morton Klein has been the National Director for 20 years.
  • The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations: Malcom Hoenlein has been the Executive Vice Chairman for 27 years.

Of the four organizations above, none has ever been led by a woman.

Why?

Some point to an increasing reliance on big donors for funding as it’s not cost effective to cultivate lots of small gifts. They believe these groups become beholden to a small group of wealthy, older individuals who are almost entirely made up of conservative men.

‘The good practices you do to advance women are the good practices that are good for everyone – women and men’

According to Bronznick, there is also a “heimish, family-like quality” within Jewish organizations that makes them resistant to change.

“This we’re-all-in-it-together attitude prevents people from holding themselves to data-based metrics. We don’t prize expertise and accomplishment with the same clarity of other fields.”

Both Kaufman and Bronznick also blame retrograde personnel policies for the lack of women in senior leadership positions.

Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), is one of only five women in the top 50 of The Forward's annual Jewish salary survey.

Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), is one of only five women in the top 50 of The Forward’s annual Jewish salary survey.

“As a working mom, the expectations – set by the men – were always that we were expected to work five nights a week and Sundays,” says Kaufman, referring to her two decades of work in the Boston Jewish community.

“Even though a lot of groups talk about being family friendly, take a look at their family leave policies and maternity policies – they’re not progressive at all.”

But Bronznick and her Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community are eager to point out that the so-called “legacy organizations” are only one part of the Jewish American story.

“In the other part of the story, here’s what I’m seeing,” says Bronznick. “Four of the most influential national Jewish publications once headed by men are now headed by women: Sh’ma, Moment, The Forward and Tablet. I’m seeing two major foundations – Wexner and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation – with women at the top. That’s a big shift and it’s taking place within the most exciting organizations that are having the most national impact on the Jewish community.”

‘Four of the most influential national Jewish publications once headed by men are now headed by women’

Perhaps the unofficial arbiter of innovative North American Jewish organizations is the Slingshot Fund, which identifies and provides grants to what it determines to be the 50 most cutting edge non-profits in Jewish life.

Of the Slingshot grantees, 62 percent of the organizations are headed by women, including the fast-growing Encounter, Keshet, and IKAR.

In fact, the spiritual leader of IKAR, a Los Angeles-based progressive Jewish community, is Rabbi Sharon Brous, who was named the most influential rabbi in the US by Newsweek and The Daily Beast earlier this year.

“What’s happening now in Jewish life is people who want to create change and transformation are not running to federations or legacy organizations,” says Bronznick. “They’re going where the action is.”